Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “NOBODY TOLD ME THERE’D BE DAYS LIKE THESE…”

Doug Thompson headshotAs a proud member of the first wave of the Baby Boom Generation, there are certain historic events that are indelibly etched in my memory banks.

For example, the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.  Most of us who were alive then, remember exactly where we were when we heard the news.  I was in class in Edmonton (which was the same time zone as Dallas, so we heard around 1PM that President Kennedy has been killed.

I vividly  recall my teacher, Mrs. Jha, putting her head down on the desk and crying.  Both of my grandparents on my father’s side had passed away, so I’d dealt with death on a personal level (although I was only in my early teens), this was something different. 

Doug at PAMS Dallas 1972Every television station and network (we only had CBC and CTV in Edmonton but they were carrying the U.S. network feeds) was covering the aftermath of the assassination for days.  It left such an indelible impression on me that the first time I went to Dallas to record some commercial jingles at PAMS jingle company in 1972, I just had to go to Depository Hertz SignDealy Plaza to see the actual location for myself.  At the time, the Hertz sign was still on top of the Texas School Book Depository (it’s been gone for many decades).  There wasn’t a museum on the 6th floor yet.  I walked over to the grassy knoll area and the picket fence as well as the Dal Tex building, which was kitty corner to the Book Depository (conspiracy theorists believe there was a second shooter in that building along with a marksman by the picket fence).

Then there was that terrible night in 1980.  Although there have been many rock’n’roll deaths over the years, none touched me as much as the murder of John Lennon.  Many people heard about the shooting from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.

Not me.

“It was the 8th of December.  That night, I’ll always remember, yes I will” (apologies to Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for paraphrasing “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”) Since I wasn’t really a football fan, I was watching a “M*A*S*H” rerun on WBEN, Channel 4 in Buffalo.

Walter Cronkite on Lennon Part One

Walter Cronkite on Lennon Part Two

Near the end of the show, the station (or the CBS network) put a crawl on the bottom of the screen saying John Lennon had been shot.  Less than 10 minutes later, Dan Plouffe, Director of Promotions for CFTR radio called.  He said, “You’ve heard about John Lennon?”  I said that I had.  He then asked, “Can you grab your Beatles interviews and meet me at the station in half an hour?”  “I’ll Be There”, I told Dan.

We didn’t leave for the next 2½ days.

If you’ve read one of my previous blogs, you’ll know I spent 6 days straight producing “CHUM’s Story of The Beatles” in 1970.  No sleep.  Just a quick shower every morning, then back to CHUM.  So 2½ days would be a walk in the park.  As it turns out, it wasn’t.  I was now 10 years older and my body had mysteriously slowed down a bit, but somehow with a lot of burgers and fries at 3 and 4 in the morning (I used to eat meat back then) and a ton of pop, we got through it.

CFTR LogoBy the time I got to CFTR in downtown Toronto, Dan and Program Director Bill Gable were already there.  We sat in Bill’s office and planned out exactly what we were going to do.  I took over the CFTR main production studio and began assembling musical montages and editing the interviews (this was still in the era of reel-to-reel tape recorders and splicing 1/4“ audio tape) while Bill Gable began writing what we decided would be a two hour special.

Bill finished writing the first hours’ script in about an hour and popped into the production studio to record his narration.  Bill is one of the all-time great Bill Gablerock jocks, having worked at WHBQ in Memphis as well as CKLW Windsor/Detroit (where he was ‘Brother’ Bill Gable.  A lot of ‘Big 8’ listeners who’d never seen a picture of Bill, especially on the U.S. side, thought he was black, which he wasn’t).  Fifteen minutes later, we had the first hour’s voice tracks, which I then began to assemble with interview clips and Beatles/Lennon music, pulling out everything from my production bag o’ tricks.

That took the next 7 hours.

The second and final hour was completed in about the same time.  Bill, Dan and I were at the station the entire time.  The program aired later that night on CFTR.  Bill had written it from the station’s point of view.  It was the # 1 Top 40 station in Toronto at the time (having beaten 1050 CHUM in the ratings) and CFTR’s call letters were throughout the program’s script.

During that day (December 9th), Bill kept getting calls from Program Directors at other Roger’s radio stations across the country saying they’d heard there was a special Lennon tribute in the works and could they have it for their station.

Gulp.

Tape Editing by Hand“Of course you can have it”, Bill told them all confidently, not realizing how much work was involved taking out all the CFTR mentions and re-mixing the program.  So, while the program was airing on CFTR, Bill, Dan and I were back in the stations’ 8 track production studio listening to every break to see where we needed to replace a CFTR mention.

Now anyone who’s ever written or produced anything, knows that if you get a second chance to make something better, you’ll do it.  That’s what I did.  There were a couple of montages I thought I could produce much better and some fresh interview material had come in since we’d finished the Toronto Sam'sversion.  CFTR had sent one of their reporters down to Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street to get reaction from fans who were flocking to buy John Lennon albums.  Same thing happened when Elvis died in 1977.  People get caught up in their grief…or possibly greed, thinking that an Elvis or John Lennon album would be worth a lot more now that the artist is dead, not realizing that when the records sold out and the store cupboards were bare, their respective record companies would simply press more.  Which is precisely what happened in both cases.

Therefore, the program that aired nationally on most of the rock stations that Rogers owned was quite a bit different from the local CFTR tribute.  It bloody well better have been since I spent another 20 hours on it.

Non-stop.

Well OK, I took bathroom breaks, but I ate in the studio while working.  That two hour program aired across Canada, but to me, it still felt rushed (obviously, it was).

The following summer, Dan Plouffe and I decided to pull out all the stops and create a true, lasting radio tribute to John Lennon.  I had already norman snith and the beatlesinterviewed many of the people he’d worked with such as EMI Abbey Road engineer Norman Smith (with the Beatles), Beatles producer George Martin et al (although I hadn’t yet worked with Ringo Starr, that wouldn’t happen for two more years), so I travelled to England, New York and Los Angeles to gather more interviews.  I started writing the script in early June and finished in late August.  I really wanted to make this one special.

Trying to make this radio documentary on John Lennon as realistic as possible, and needing a strong opening to the three hour program, one of the times I was in New York that summer, I stood by the Dakota building, where Season of GlassJohn had been shot, at approximately the same time (11:35PM), I recorded the sound of Manhattan traffic.  Later on back in the studio, I mixed that effect with the sound of an echoed gunshot along with a Yoko scream, both of which came from Yoko’s 1981 album, “Season of Glass”.  That’s the one with John’s blood stained glasses on the cover beside a half filled glass of water positioned on the inside of a window sill at a Dakota with Central Park in the background.

So with all of that in place, I decided to recreate Lennon’s murder.

I recorded a friend of mine outside the studio yelling “Mr. Lennon”, followed by the gunshot and scream.  That was then mixed with screaming Beatles fans and 1980 fan reaction to the shooting, along with a short interview clip from Alan Williams, The Beatles first manager.  All of that was mixed together with John’s song “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier”.  The lyrics to that song include “Well, I don’t want to be a soldier mama, I don’t want to die”.  I had timed the fan reaction and the interview clip to end right when John next sang “oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no”.  That was followed by a clip from John’s LA pal Harry Nilsson, who talked about gun violence and how you can’t stop an assassin if he wants to get you.

Then came an incredibly prescient sound bite from John himself at the 1966 Toronto Beatles press conference.  It was an extremely relaxed media event, not frenzied with fans like they usually had in the U.S.  John even says early on, “this is good, I think I can relax here”.  Halfway through, a radio reporter asked John for a comment about the war in Vietnam and John’s answer was, “there’s no reason on earth why anyone should kill anybody else”.  The reporter continued with, “well why don’t you come out and comment”…and Lennon cut him off by saying, “because someone would shoot us for saying it, that’s why!”

Remember, this was 1966 in the height of Beatlemania.  John’s murder was still 14 years in the future.

Roosevelt Hospital New YorkFollowing the song lyric came the statement from the Roosevelt Hospital doctor who announced that John was gone: “He had multiple gunshot wounds in his chest, in his left arm and in his back.  There were seven wounds in his body, but in spite of transfusions and many procedures, he could not be resuscitated.”  After the doctor’s emotional pronouncement, I brought up the last line from John’s song “God”, “…and so dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.  The dream is over.”

My god, it was damned powerful stuff, even if I do say so myself.  It gave me chills putting it together.

TelemediaIt may have been a little too powerful.  In Canada, Paul Williams at Telemedia Network Radio syndicated the program and built an impressive network of 65 radio stations to carry what we called “John Lennon: A Celebration”.  In the U.S., Dan Plouffe and I sold it to the NBC Radio Network known as The Source.  It was NBC’s rock network.  It aired on well over a hundred stations during December of 1981.

Every station played the program complete as I produced it…except one.

NBC RadioAbout two weeks before the December 8th anniversary, I got a call from NBC Radio saying the New York affiliate station felt that the opening was just a little too real and since this was only a year since Lennon’s murder, they felt uncomfortable airing the 1 minute and 42 second opening.  I was not happy about that.  The reason that I decided to re-create John’s last moments were because I had heard an interview with Yoko in early ‘81 in which she said she wanted NBC Micpeople to remember that John didn’t just die, he was MURDERED!  That interview stuck with me and I wanted listeners to be faced with the reality of what happened that night right at the top, then we could continue on and celebrate John’s life in the rest of the program.  In the end, I agreed to let them do whatever they wanted to do off the top.  I have never heard what the station eventually did…nor do I ever care to.

I had recorded the script in Los Angeles with a wonderful voice over talent named Ben Chandler.  Ben was a veteran in Hollywood, having been the in-house voice for Hugh Heller Productions as well as doing a ton of work for Chuck Blore.  Ben’s read was emotional and exactly fit what I had in mind.  Ben has long since passed away, but I absolutely adored working with him.  He was one of the kindest, gentlest human beings ever to grace this planet and nearly every time, he’d nail the script in one take.

Lennon Young“John Lennon: A Celebration” was extremely well received both in Canada and the U.S. and every five years after the anniversary, I produced yet another tribute to the man who once wrote: “I don’t believe in Beatles.  I just believe in me.  Yoko and me.  That’s reality.”

John Lennon was one of my musical heroes and I enjoyed adding to his legacy with new insights and interviews every five years, but I never again captured the magic of that 1981 program… until 2005.  By then I was working with Peter Miniaci, a well respected and long-time Beatles memorabilia dealer and media entrepreneur.  Both Peter and I were under contract to Pirate Radio & Television under a new division called Pirate Entertainment Group or PEG for short.  Think about pirates and peg (legs) for a moment and you’ll get the subtle title.  Our first project turned out to be my final John Lennon radio special.  2005 would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday.  It was also the 25th anniversary of his murder, so all the stops were pulled out.  We decided to create two three hour radio specials, the first would cover John’s birth through to the end of The Beatles and would air during John’s birthday week.  The second three hour special would cover his solo years, his death and the aftermath and Pete Bennett and John Lennonwould air during the week of December 8th.  Peter and I travelled near and far for even more interviews.  This time, we found, among many others, Pete Bennett (with John Lennon), who’d worked as the Director of Promotion for Apple Records during the Allen Klein years.  Pete had remained close to John and George Harrison and had worked with them on several of their respective solo projects.  Pete later became a good friend and both Peter Miniaci and I spent many hours in his company listening to his amazing show business exploits.  He literally knew everybody.

The two Lennon specials would be bookends for a daily sixty second feature about John’s life that included a short interview clip.  These we called “A Minute of Lennon”.

As I was writing the two three hour scripts (Pirate Radio & Television’s Terry O’Reilly wrote all of the one minute featurettes), we were coming up with Graham Nashnames to host all of these projects.  One name stood out amongst all of the others.

Graham Nash.

Graham had been a close friend of The Beatles (he attended the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” recording session for “A Day In The Life”).  Graham was perfect.  But would he do it?  He was nearing the end of a world tour with Crosby, Stills & Nash, so we called his manager in LA to find out.

And you’ll find out THAT adventure next time.  One small clue.  It involves Hawaiian beaches, transcendent waterfalls and a tiny, tiny, tiny voice booth with no air conditioning.

The audio opening to the 1981 John Lennon special that NBC’s New York affiliate rejected

=DT=

Doug’s column appears here every 4th Friday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

DBAWIS ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

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